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Story of the year: NY prison escape

Richard Matt and David Sweat made their way through holes they’d cut through the backs their cells

By Joe LoTemplio and Justin Trombly

PLATTSBURGH — The 2015 North Country story of the year was undoubtedly the escape of two convicted murderers from Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora.

Richard Matt and David Sweat made their way through holes they’d cut through the backs their cells, onto a catwalk and down into the bowels of the prison before emerging from a manhole on nearby Bouck Street on June 5.

Their flight would touch off a weeks-long manhunt that focused international attention on the North Country and lured reporters from major media outlets.

And though just how it all unfolded remains unresolved as the new year starts, many in Dannemora are moving on.

Chris Hansen, vice president of the Northern Region for New York State Corrections Officers and Police Benevolent Association, said Thursday that guards are getting back into their routines in the wake of the escape.

Leo “Skip” Maggy, a Clinton retiree who founded Maggy Pharmacy in Dannemora, believes people outside the prison are at ease again, too.

Most are glad the chaos has subsided, he said Thursday, even if they won’t forget it.

“It was something that happened in 2015 that we hope will never happen again,” he said about the escape.

Luke LaPointe, assistant manager at Maplefields in Dannemora, said Thursday that most talk about the escape these days comes in stories told to tourists and others passing through to see the epicenter of the mayhem.

He said his regulars — many of whom are correction officers — are focused on moving on.

The night of their breakout, Matt and Sweat were supposed to be picked up by prison employee Joyce Mitchell, but the Dickinson Center woman panicked and did not show up.

Matt and Sweat had developed a relationship with Mitchell in the prison tailor shop where she worked as a supervisor.

She was arrested a week after the escape and charged with aiding the fugitives, who were still on the run.

Mitchell admitted to smuggling in hacksaw blades inside a package of frozen hamburger meat. The meat was delivered to Matt’s cell by correction officer Gene Palmer at the request of Mitchell.

Palmer was arrested and charged with official misconduct, tampering with evidence and promoting prison contraband.

He maintains he did not know the saw blades were in the hamburger meat when he brought the package to Matt and has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

His case is still pending.

Matt, 49, and Sweat, 35, were on the lam for two weeks before State Police confirmed their DNA at a hunting camp in Mountain View in Franklin County after they had a close encounter with citizen John Stockwell.

Until then, hundreds of law-enforcement personnel, including Corrections Emergency Response Teams from around the state, had been scouring the woods near the prison and in the nearby Cadyville area searching for the pair, with side excursions to Willsboro and the state’s Southern Tier.

After they were proven to be in Franklin County, police shifted their search and began ramping up the pressure, with hundreds more officers joining the search.

Unbeknownst to police, Matt and Sweat had parted ways.

On Friday, June 26, police responded to a report of shots fired near Route 30 in Malone, near the Town of Duane line.

Using a shotgun stolen from a camp where he and Sweat had holed up, Matt had fired several rounds at a passing vehicle, striking a camper trailer.

After failing to surrender, he was shot and killed by a Border Patrol marksman near that spot.

Two days later, State Police Sgt. Jay Cook identified Sweat, jogging along a road in Constable near the Canadian border.

The local police officer chased him through a field and, as it appeared Sweat would escape into the woods, shot him and then took the wounded fugitive into custody.

Sweat, who was serving a life sentence without the chance for parole for killing a Broome County sheriff’s deputy in 2002, pleaded guilty to escape charges.

He will be sentenced in February in Clinton County Court.

Sweat is incarcerated at Five Points Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in the Finger Lakes.

Mitchell was sentenced to 2 1/3 to seven years in prison for her part in the escape.

She is serving her time at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.

The manhunt lasted 23 days and cost the state an estimated $1 million per day.

State Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott is conducting a thorough investigation into the escape.

By year’s end, her office had completed hundreds of interviews with staff and inmates at Clinton Correctional Facility and was piecing together what happened that led to the breakout.

The investigation is also looking into all procedures at the prison.

There is no timetable for the final report, her office has said.

“The report is still on their minds,” Hansen said of correction officers at Clinton. Many are curious about the results, especially as they relate to 12 prison employees placed on administrative leave months ago.

The union official believes many of those officers will be exonerated when the report is released.

“The brunt of the blame can’t be on the union or COs,” he said.

While he suspects it won’t paint the fairest picture, as those working on it have not worked in the prison, Hansen thinks the report will spotlight some ways Clinton can be bettered.

He expressed his frustration with the lack of union involvement in the investigation, though.

Hansen also offered insight into some of the changes made at Clinton Correctional since the manhunt — and those coming in the future.

Along with guard towers that are now manned, he said, the state has added nearly 30 eight-hour shifts per day at the prison, many during the afternoon and at night.

He sees these changes, as well as those made throughout the state system this year, as an acknowledgement from Albany of its failures, especially regarding staff cuts at the Dannemora facility.

When the state’s investigation is complete, Hansen believes the “Albany transplants” appointed to administrative positions after the breakout will be replaced with locals.

“Once that change in the higher echelon happens,” he said, “I think Clinton will really level out and get back to where it was.”

Copyright 2016 the Press-Republican